Twenty years ago, four friends with an abiding love of the Hudson River and its history stepped away from their families and their work to travel up the river in a homemade strip-planked canoe to experience the river on its most intimate terms. The team set off from Liberty State Park in New Jersey and completed the adventure nine days later just below Albany where one of the paddlers lived. They began with no itinerary and no pre-arranged lodging or shore support. There were no cell phones. The journey deepened their appreciation for the river and its many moods, the people who live and work beside the river and the importance of friendship in sustaining our lives.
Please join us vicariously on this excellent adventure. We've been posting every Friday for the past several weeks, and Muddy Paddle's Excellent Adventure on the Hudson is almost complete - just two more days after this - so thanks for reading along! Follow the adventure here.
It was very cold at dawn with frost on the ground. The windmill at Rokeby Farms was silhouetted against the brightening eastern sky. I put on an extra sweatshirt and went out to sketch our cove and “Bob’s Bus” in my journal. The tide was still going out, so Steve and Joe had time to walk up the road to the steel gate to find out what place we were at. They observed BIG signs warning against trespassing and threatening prosecution and wisely decided that it would be a good time to depart.
The tide was still going out at 9:15 when we made our offing. It was a beautiful and sunny fall morning with a breeze out of the north. We arrived at Ulster Landing after a brisk twenty minute paddle. As we approached the abandoned Turkey Point Coast Guard Depot, we observed a flock of geese on shore take flight.
With a favorable tide and a moderating wind we began to make real progress. We passed the 1794 Callendar House on the east bank and stopped to rest at the 1869 Saugerties Lighthouse. In earlier trips, we had stayed overnight here and simply dropped a contribution in the donation jar before leaving in the morning. When we arrived this time, the lighthouse was operating as a $140 per night bed and breakfast booked more than a year in advance.
We made bologna sandwiches, drank lots of water and after a nice pause pushed off at 1:00. We paddled through the turbulent wake of a Mobil petroleum barge towing south behind a light blue tug. We followed the east shore alongside the tracks and signaled an Amtrak engineer to salute us with his blaring air horn. The afternoon was sunny and warm with only a light breeze from the north. The flood tide helped us cover ground quickly. We passed the grey concrete silos and conveyors at Cementon where the extensive concrete plants marred one of the most magnificent views of the Catskills. We steered for the center of the river, past the mouths of the Roe Jan Kill on the east and Ramshorn Creek to the west. Frederic Church’s Olana, begun in 1870, looked down upon us as we approached Catskill Point. Soon, the Rip Van Winkle Bridge loomed large. Steve knows of a spatterdock-filled channel east of Roger’s Island which if passable, would have shaved a mile off of the main river route. We were tempted, but Steve was not convinced that the channel was clear all the way through. An eagle appeared and beckoned us to follow him north on the main channel of the river.
After passing beneath the bridge, we followed the main channel toward Hudson and were buffeted by turbulence where two channels separate to follow separate paths around the elongated Middle Ground Island. The 1874 Hudson-Athens Lighthouse stands here with water swirling around its limestone platform. It was getting late and the tide was getting ready to reverse. We were faced with the choice of which side of the island to paddle along and which side offered the best hope of shelter overnight. We started up the Athens channel, but found nothing but low ground and tall grass and reeds. We turned around and came up the Hudson channel instead. We were swept along by a strong current and found many provisional squatter camps along the shoreline, some decorated by colorful road signs and multi-colored roofs made from salvaged material. We began looking for a clearing where we might camp without being noticed or hassled.
All of the camps were closed for the season except for one, which was literally tumbling into the river. Here we found a man in a camouflaged bass boat. Steve hailed him and asked if anyone would mind if we camped here for the night. The man replied “no” and introduced himself as Smitty as we paddled in toward the shore. This was Smitty’s place and he guided us to a cove where we are able to tie up to beneath a sprawling maple tree covered with poison ivy. Steve bragged that once again, the Lord had provided for us.
We climbed out and introduced ourselves. Smitty’s camp was an informal, unplanned structure built from salvaged scraps of wood and partially cantilevered over the river. Two pilings hung from a corner where the bank had been undermined. Smitty explained that when he built the place, it was situated about fifty feet from the river’s edge. The camp consisted of a large shed with a tar paper roof slanting away from the river with an attached porch overlooking the river. An addition built out of a truck trailer or a refrigeration unit was attached on the upland side. A two-person bus seat (could it be from “Bob’s Bus?”) offered the perfect vantage point for enjoying views of the river and coming and going trains.
Smitty invited us to sit down at the bus bench and several assorted stumps and he began a story about the island and this particular camp while I prepared a sketch. The island, enlarged by dredge spoil early in the twentieth century, became a favorite haunt for sportsmen and teenagers from the city of Hudson. Land ownership has remained ambiguous. New York State claimed the Middle Ground as state land and periodically threatened to remove the camps. Camp owners claimed that much of it was privately owned but that the deeds burned in a courthouse fire. According to Smitty, Columbia and Greene counties could not even agree on which county had jurisdiction over the island. Smitty told us that he represented the third generation of his Hudson family to maintain a camp here. As a boy, his mother warned him to stay away from the river, but this only encouraged him more. He and his friends still came out here to hunt deer and ducks and to drink beer. Their wives were resigned to the state of things and rarely ventured out to the camp. Smitty claimed that they had had some problems from interloping hunters from Athens, but that there had been little theft or vandalism. He was surprisingly philosophical about losing the camp one day realizing that things could change.
It got dark and cold. We built a fire near the beach and Smitty invited us to stay in the “new” camp in the woods which was furnished with half a dozen cots. The new camp was enclosed but unfinished and roofed with an assortment of asphalt shingles of different colors and textures. Pieces of siding were being collected and stored underneath until enough were on hand to cover the walls. There was a convenient two-holer a respectful distance away and a shed for a portable generator. We hauled our gear to the new camp and returned to the fire. Smitty pulled the cord on his outboard and motored home. Joe cooked up beans and franks on the fire and we ate and told stories there. The sky became filled with stars as the temperature dropped. We watched the trains with bright lights arrive and depart from Hudson.
We put out the fire at 9:00 and returned to the new camp in the woods. It was dry and the mattresses were soft, but with only a screen door, it proved to be another very cold night.
Don't forget to join us again next Friday for the final day of the trip!
Muddy Paddle’s love of the Hudson River goes back to childhood when he brought dead fish home, boarded foreign freighters to learn how they operated and wandered along the river shore in search of the river’s history. He has traveled the river often, aboard tugboats, sailing vessels large and small and canoes. The account of this trip was kept in a small illustrated journal kept dry within a sealed plastic bag. The illustrations accompanying this account were prepared by the author.
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